First public hearing on final Code SMTX draft targets neighborhood characterization

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San Marcos City Council spent a combined four and a half hours discussing how neighborhoods would best be preserved and characterized during a work session and public hearing on the final draft of Code SMTX on Tuesday.

While no vote on the land development code overhaul is expected to take place until Jan. 16, the council spent much of the afternoon and evening discussing a contentious suite of residential zoning districts called Neighborhood Districts and the yet-to-be-completed neighborhood character studies that many residents wanted to see finished before the adoption of Code SMTX.

Nine people urged the council to complete the neighborhood character studies before Neighborhood Districts are adopted. They argued that Neighborhood Districts would change the character and integrity of their neighborhoods and that city staff did not communicate its land development code plans thoroughly.

“It’s a song and dance,” said resident Diana Baker, complaining that the city presented information during the early years of Code SMTX and did not follow through with promises. “It just seems like fraud.”

This was the first time the council formally got to see the final draft of the proposed new code following the recommendation of the Planning and Zoning Commission, which called for Neighborhood Districts to be replaced by Legacy Districts—the zoning districts from the current land development code—until character studies are completed.

Neighborhood Districts
Neighborhood Districts, according to the proposed code, “should be applied to preserve and enhance the character of existing neighborhood areas while providing options or limited neighborhood-oriented commercial uses.” They are intended for infill or redevelopment in areas that have a mix of residential and commercial properties.

There are several subcategories of zoning within Neighborhood Districts—ND 3, ND 3.5, ND 4, and ND 4 M, for Main Street—that allow various building types ,such as cottages, cottage courts, duplexes and attached houses.

Three people spoke in favor of the code and its Neighborhood Districts, including developer John David Carson and architect Sarah Simpson.

Carson served on the think tank in the code’s beginning stages and discussed the amount of time city staff spent executing neighborhood workshops to gather data on how residents wanted their city to be shaped.

“This was a massive effort and a core objective was to gather input from all types of citizens and not just the usual voices,” he said in a prepared statement.

Carson noted that under the new code, no properties are automatically rezoned and future rezonings are subject to expanded notifications, meetings, timelines and requirements. The city has also proposed turning districts that the community has said do not work into Legacy Districts, no longer available for rezoning districts, he said.

He also pointed out that Neighborhood Districts are limited by occupancy restrictions, prohibit student housing and are subject to new compatibility standards.

Simpson defended cottage courts—which some residents have rebuffed—saying they were a good example of the missing-middle housing needed in San Marcos.

She also pointed to an “imbalance in neighborhood control” and urged council to approve on the Neighborhood Districts.

“It has become very clear that these 11th-hour calls [to delay the adoption of Neighborhood Districts]are coming from a small group of people that do not fully represent the geographic neighborhoods of San Marcos nor their actual demographics,” she said.

In response to the Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendation to replace Neighborhood Districts with Legacy Districts until neighborhood character studies are performed, planning staff presented several alternatives.

One would include adding more zoning districts that would allow fewer building types and therefore more predictability, something many council members supported.

Council also liked that neighborhood zoning changes of an acre or more would have to present a regulating plan that gives details on building types, schedule, parkland, the street network and other special requirements.

Council Member Melissa Derrick said she would like regulating plans to include a five-year rental or ownership history requirement.

The other alternative council considered involved including buffers around lots that limit rezoning in areas where more than 50 percent of properties are zoned for single-family homes.

The code draft will return to council on Jan. 16, when council members will hold a work session and another public hearing. Following the public hearing, council hopes to vote on the first of two readings on its adoption.

Neighborhood character studies
The city has proposed performing the neighborhood character studies following the adoption of Code SMTX, because the code will offer tools—or options like expanded building types—for how residents want their neighborhoods to look.

Griffin Spell, who sits on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, said he was “cautiously” in support of Code SMTX but wants to see the neighborhood character studies done before its adoption.

“It seems a bit confusing that we would move forward with such a radical change in our code—which I think is necessary—without all the information we need,” Spell said.

Council spent much of its two-hour work session discussing the process for neighborhood character studies. It would involve two phases: The first would establish city-wide, concrete goals—like having a park within every quarter-mile of a residential neighborhood—that would be decided through citizen input and by the City Council.The second would involve conducting the studies, which Planning Manager Abby Gillfillan said could take 6-12 months and cost $200,000 per study.

Planning Director Shannon Mattingly said data collected in 2014-15 during the Code SMTX neighborhood workshops would also be applied.

Planning staff has divided the city into six neighborhoods, but some council members called for more.

“I think six is too small; it puts neighborhoods that are not similar together,” Council Member Jane Hughson said.

Staff was directed to look into dividing the neighborhoods further and coming up with a plan for how to execute Phase 1.

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Marie Albiges
Marie Albiges was the editor for the San Marcos, Buda and Kyle edition of Community Impact Newspaper. She covered San Marcos City Council, San Marcos CISD and Hays County Commissioners Court. Marie previously reported for the Central Austin edition. Marie moved to Austin from Williamsburg, Va. in 2016 and was born in France. She has since moved on from Community Impact in May 2018.
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